This past week I’ve had two new students, one clarinet and one saxophone, both of whom have been playing for under a year. I always ask the student to play me something so that I can get an idea of how well they play, and as usual, it seems a student never has a favourite piece to play. How does that even happen? Surely their previous teacher must have given them something that they actually liked playing. Okay, so after I ask ‘how about you play me this piece then’, pointing to something in their book, I get to hear how they’re going. One thing instantly catches my ear. The tonguing is terrible.
The Importance of Tonguing
Tonguing is second only to being able to get a sound out of the instrument, and yeah, sure, you can argue that moving fingers all around the instrument while blowing air just so you play a song is important, the reality is, if one can’t tongue, it’s not going to sound all that interesting.
Tonguing is the default. If in doubt about the articulation, tongue it. Ultimately slurring just means play smoothly and pianos can’t ‘not tongue’, so the reality is slurring by not tonguing (something only wind players can do) is just one of all possible ways to articulate a note. All else requires the tongue: staccato, tenuto, accents, marcato, semi-staccato and everything in between.
That is why I believe it’s important to teach the student good tonguing technique early on. It’s so fundamental that if not given any attention, practise is going to get super miserable for the student when they start squeaking all the time.
Teaching How to Tongue: The Drill
This follows on from teaching good embouchure, but assuming the student can get a sound out, this is the routine I like to use.
- Stick it in your mouth (the clarinet, of course)
- Make sure the tongue is under the reed!. Not curled up so as to hit the front/tip of the reed (I’ve seen this) and certainly not above the mouthpiece so that one’s tongue hits the top of the mouth. Gosh, do I have a story to tell on this, so more on that later.
- Now, press the reed with the tongue so that no air is going to get out when you blow.
- Blow… no sound, because the tongue is down.
- Keep trying to blow air… no sound, because the tongue is down.
- Now, quickly release the tongue, but only just enough to make the sound suddenly bellow out. Enjoy that big sound for a moment.
- Lastly, slap the tongue back down again. No sound, but the air is still trying to push out.
- Release the tongue again. Bang, sound.
That last points are incredibly important. The air is like a hose with water gushing out of it from the water pressure. It’s relentless and is always trying to get out. One can squeeze the hose to stop the flow, yet the water is still trying to get out. This is exactly what is happening with a wind instrument and tonguing. For that moment in time while the tongue is down, all it is doing is fighting the air from getting out, and that air should always be being pushed to create the air equivalent of that water pressure.
I ask the student to do this for a while so that they get used to the sensation. For many, it’s such an unusual feeling because they’ve been used to blowing each note, or alternatively, doing that strange thing with their throat which produces that strange ‘ngua’, ‘ngua’ sound. I have no idea how they do that.
Tonguing like a flute player (which you DON’T do)
This will forever be one of my most memorable teaching stories. Quite a few years ago, I started teaching a student who I think had 3 previous teachers over about 4 years. This student was one of those who could play alright, but strangely through either not practising very well, or maybe lacking in natural talent, didn’t really make massive progress. That being said, he was playing grade 5 pieces for a Trinity exam at the time I started teaching him. My super attuned clarinet ears always react to something that is not quite right, and my mouth tightens at the sound of a loose embouchure, as it to compensate for what the student isn’t doing. That day however, it was this student’s inability to hit the high notes, something they’d always struggled on. I knew something was up, but after ages of going through the usual ‘strengthen the lips’, ‘get a doo/too shape’ etc, I went right back to the beginning. It would have gone something like this.
“Look, lets start this from scratch. Teeth, 1cm down. Tongue, under the reed; hit it like so,” at which point I’ve lifted the clarinet up to demonstrate by using my outstretched right forefinger to whack the bottom of the reed with by finger nail.
The student look as be as if in a eureka moment and said: “Ummm, I’m not tonguing the reed.”
And I’m all, “Huh? What are you tonguing then”.
Student: “The top of my mouth”.
Me: “Well, I guess that would explain a few things.”
So after four years and three previous teachers, no one had picked this up. The student had somehow managed to do such an amazing job of playing clarinet by tonguing the top of his mouth that no one had noticed. Embarrassingly, it had even taken me a few weeks to realise this because everything sounded there or thereabouts until he reached the higher notes.
Try tonguing like a flutist, you’ll be surprised how well it works.
From there it was a matter of teaching via the above steps, which vastly improved everything for this student.